There’s something kind of exciting about discovering acne in a new, previously unblemished part of your face, like, say, in your ear. Acne that crops up around the opening to the ear canal or in the hollow (also known as the concha) of the ear might be a rare occurrence for most people, but once it happens to you it’s almost impossible to ignore.
Luckily, dealing with ear pimples is relatively straightforward once you know what’s causing them.What causes a pimple in your ear?
A pimple forms when pores get clogged by some combination of oil, bacteria, and dead skin. So it makes sense that two key causes of acne are hormones, which can affect the amount of oil (sebum) your skin products, and the skin’s natural propensity to build up oil and dead skin cells, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SELF. As a result, areas with higher concentrations of oil glands, he explains, are more likely to develop acne: “This typically means the T-zone of the face, chest, back, and even the ears.”
When it comes to pimples inside the ear, another factor that can play a huge role is occlusion, Robert Anolik, M.D., a clinical assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone. Occlusion is a term used to describe any instance in which the skin is physically blocked and unable to shed dead skin normally, leading to a breakout.
For example, anyone who’s had pimples right along their eyeglasses line has experienced acne due to occlusion. In the same way that your glasses can press down on your skin and trap oil, makeup, and dirt, so too can your earbuds.
“In the case of earbuds, this contact between the plastic or rubber and the skin’s surface [is] essentially trapping the contents inside the pore and occluding it,” Dr. Anolik says. “That restrained exit of the contents [of the pore] can build up, creating papules and cysts.” He adds that having excess earwax can actually have the same occluding effect and contributing to acne as well.
For the record, you should speak with your dermatologist if you notice painful, cystic acne in your ears—or anywhere else, for that matter. This severe form of acne often warrants prescription treatments and, if left alone, can lead to scarring. In addition to cysts and hard, red papules, you can also get blackheads around the ear, particularly above the opening to the ear canal, in the concha area, Dr. Zeichner says.
If you tend to break out in your ears pretty frequently, your earbuds are the likely culprit, but it’s also possible that your skin is simply more inclined to overproduce oil in that area (Dr. Anolik says some people can wear earbuds as much as they want without seeing any pimples in their ear).What looks like an ear pimple might not actually be acne.
Even if you’re a chronic earbud user, don’t assume that that bump in your ear is acne. Dr. Anolik says that it could very well be seborrheic dermatitis, a rash that, like acne, tends to occur wherever there’s a high concentration of oil glands.
That said, seborrheic dermatitis won’t have as many isolated bumps as acne. Instead, it’ll look like a pink or red rash with flaking scales. In some cases, it can cause itchy raised bumps, sort of like a pimple but not quite. He adds that there’s also a chance that you could mistake an itchy fungal infection or even a painful, tender staph infection for acne, which would be even worse to ignore.